May, beautiful May, had brought the golden flowers, and the trees in the valley behind the sleepy old town of Calcombe Pomeroy were decking themselves in the first wan green of their early spring foliage. The ragged robins were hanging out, pinky red, from the hedgerows; the cuckoo was calling from the copse beside the mill stream; and the merry wee hedge-warblers were singing lustily from the topmost sprays of hawthorn, with their full throats bursting tremulously in the broad sunshine. And Ernest Le Breton, too, filled with the season, had come down from Dunbude for a fortnight's holiday, on his premised visit to his friend Oswald, or, to say the truth more plainly, to Oswald's pretty little sister Edie. For Ernest had fully made up his mind by this time what it was he had come for, and he took the earliest possible opportunity of taking a walk with Edie alone, through the tiny glen behind the town, where the wee stream tumbles lazily upon the big slow-turning vanes of the overshot mill-wheel.
'Let us sit down a bit on the bank here, Miss Oswald,' he said to his airy little companion, as they reached the old stone bridge that crosses the stream just below the mill-house; 'it's such a lovely day one feels loath to miss any of it, and the scenery here looks so bright and cheerful after the endless brown heather and russet bracken about Dunbude. Not that Exmoor isn't beautiful in its way, too--all Devonshire is beautiful alike for that matter; but then it's more sombre and woody in the north, and much less spring-like than this lovely quiet South Devon country.'
'I'm so glad you like Calcombe,' Edie said, with one of her unfailing blushes at the indirect flattery to herself implied in praise of her native county; 'and you think it prettier than Dunbude, then, do you?'
'Prettier in its own way, yes, though not so grand of course; everything here is on a smaller scale. Dunbude, you know, is almost mountainous.'
'And the Castle?' Edie asked, bringing round the conversation to her own quarter, 'is that very fine? At all like Warwick, or our dear old Arlingford?'
'Oh, it isn't a castle at all, really,' Ernest answered; 'only a very big and ugly house. As architecture it's atrocious, though it's comfortable enough inside for a place of the sort.'
'And the Exmoors, are they nice people? What kind of girl is Lady Hilda, now?' Poor little Edie? she asked the question shyly, but with a certain deep beating in her heart, for she had often canvassed with herself the vague possibility that Ernest might actually fall in love with Lady Hilda. Had he fallen in love with her already, or had he not? She knew she would be able to guess the truth by his voice and manner the moment he answered her. No man can hide that secret from a woman who loves him. Yet it was not without a thrill and a flutter that she asked him, for she thought to herself, what must she seem to him after all the grand people he had been mixing with so lately at Dunbude? Was it possible he could see anything in her, a little country village girl, coming to her fresh from the great ladies of that unknown and vaguely terrible society?
'Lady Hilda!' Ernest answered, laughing--and as he said the words Edie knew in her heart that her question was answered, and blushed once more in her bewitching fashion. 'Lady Hilda! Oh, she's a very queer girl, indeed; she's not at all clever, really, but she has the one virtue of girls of her class--their perfect frankness. She's frank all over--no reserve or reticence at all about her. Whatever she thinks she says, without the slightest idea that you'll see anything to laugh at or to find fault with in it. In matters of knowledge, she's frankly ignorant. In matters of taste, she's frankly barbaric. In matters of religion, she's frankly heathen. And in matters of ethics, she's frankly immoral--or rather extra-moral,' he added, quickly correcting himself for the misleading expression.
'I shouldn't think from your description she can be a very nice person,' Edie said, greatly relieved, and pulling a few tall grasses at her side by way of hiding her interest in the subject. 'She can't be a really nice girl if she's extra-moral, as you call it.'
'Oh, I don't mean she'd cut one's throat or pick one's pocket, you know,' Ernest went on quickly, with a gentle smile. 'She's got a due respect for the ordinary conventional moralities like other people, no doubt; but in her case they're only social prejudices, not genuine ethical principles. I don't suppose she ever seriously asked herself whether anything was right or wrong or not in her whole lifetime. In fact, I'm sure she never did; and if anybody else were to do so, she'd be immensely surprised and delighted at the startling originality and novelty of thought displayed in such a view of the question.'
'But she's very handsome, isn't she?' Edie asked, following up her inquiry with due diligence.
'Handsome? oh, yes, in a bold sort of actress fashion. Very handsome, but not, to me at least, pleasing. I believe most men admire her a great deal; but she lacks a feminine touch dreadfully. She dashes away through everything as if she was hunting; and she does hunt too, which I think bad enough in anybody, and horrible in a woman.'
'Then you haven't fallen in love with her, Mr. Le Breton? I half imagined you would, you know, as I'm told she's so very attractive.'
'Fallen in love with her, Miss Oswald! Fallen in love with Hilda Tregellis! What an absurd notion! Heaven forbid it!'
'Why so, please?'
'Why, in the first place, what would be the use of it? Fancy Lady Exmoor's horror at the bare idea of her son's tutor falling in love with Lady Hilda! I assure you, Miss Oswald, she would evaporate at the very mention of such an unheard-of enormity. A man must be, if not an earl, at least a baronet with five thousand a year, before he dare face the inexpressible indignation of Lady Exmoor with an offer of marriage for Lady Hilda.'
'But people don't always fall in love by tables of precedence,' Edie put in simply. 'It's quite possible, I suppose, for a man who isn't a duke himself to fall in love with a duke's daughter, even though the duke her papa mayn't personally happen to approve of the match. However, you don't seem to think Lady Hilda herself a pleasant girl, even apart from the question of Lady Exmoor's requirements?'
'Miss Oswald,' Ernest said, looking at her suddenly, as she sat half hiding her face with her parasol, and twitching more violently than ever at the tall grasses; 'Miss Oswald, to tell you the truth, I haven't been thinking much about Hilda Tregellis or any of the other girls I've met at Dunbude, and for a very sufficient reason, because I've had my mind too much preoccupied by somebody else elsewhere.'
Edie blushed even more prettily than before, and held her peace, half raising her eyes for a second in an enquiring glance at his, and then dropping them hastily as they met, in modest trepidation. At that moment Ernest had never seen anything so beautiful or so engaging as Edie Oswald.
'Edie,' he said, beginning again more boldly, and taking her little gloved hand almost unresistingly in his; 'Edie, you know my secret. I love you. Can you love me?'
Edie looked up at him shyly, the tears glistening and trembling a little in the corner of her big bright eyes, and for a moment she answered nothing. Then she drew away her hand hastily and said with a sigh, 'Mr. Le Breton, we oughtn't to be talking so. We mustn't. Don't let us. Take me home, please, at once, and don't say anything more about it.' But her heart beat within her bosom with a violence that was not all unpleasing, and her looks half belied her words to Ernest's keen glance even as she spoke them.
'Why not, Edie?' he said, drawing her down again gently by her little hand as she tried to rise hesitatingly. 'Why not? tell me. I've looked into your face, and though I can hardly dare to hope it or believe it, I do believe I read in it that you really might love me.'
'Oh, Mr. Le Breton,' Edie answered, a tear now quivering visibly on either eyelash, 'don't ask me, please don't ask me. I wish you wouldn't. Take me home, won't you?'
Ernest dropped her hand quietly, with a little show of despondency that was hardly quite genuine, for his eyes had already told him better. 'Then you can't love me, Miss Oswald,' he said, looking at her closely. 'I'm sorry for it, very sorry for it; but I'm grieved if I have seemed presumptuous in asking you.'
This time the two tears trickled slowly down Edie's cheek--not very sad tears either--and she answered hurriedly, 'Oh, I don't mean that, Mr. Le Breton, I don't mean that. You misunderstand me, I'm sure you misunderstand me.'
Ernest caught up the trembling little hand again. 'Then you can love me, Edie?' he said eagerly, 'you can love me?'
Edie answered never a word, but bowed her head and cried a little, silently. Ernest took the dainty wee gloved hand between his own two hands and pressed it tenderly. He felt in return a faint pressure.
'Then why won't you let me love you, Edie?' he asked, looking at the blushing girl once more.
'Oh, Mr. Le Breton,' Edie said, rising and moving away from the path a little under the shade of the big elm-tree, 'it's very wrong of me to let you talk so. I mustn't think of marrying you, and you mustn't think of marrying me. Consider the difference in our positions.'
'Is that all?' Ernest answered gaily. 'Oh, Edie, if that's all, it isn't a very difficult matter to settle. My position's exactly nothing, for I've got no money and no prospects; and if I ask you to marry me, it must be in the most strictly speculative fashion, with no date and no certainty. The only question is, will you consent to wait for me till I'm able to offer you a home to live in? It's asking you a great deal, I know; and you've made me only too happy and too grateful already; but if you'll wait for me till we can marry, I shall live all my life through to repay you for your sacrifice.'
'But, Mr. Le Breton,' Edie said, turning towards the path and drying her eyes quickly, 'I really don't think you ought to marry me. The difference in station is so great--even Harry would allow the difference in station. Your father was a great man, and a general and a knight, you know; and though my dear father is the best and kindest of men, he isn't anything of that sort, of course.'
A slight shade of pain passed across Ernest's face. 'Edie,' he said, 'please don't talk about that--please don't. My father was a just and good man, whom I loved and honoured deeply; if there's anything good in any of us boys, it comes to us from my dear father. But please don't speak to me about his profession. It's one of the griefs and troubles of my life. He was a soldier, and an Indian soldier too; and if there's anything more certain to me than the principle that all fighting is very wrong and indefensible, it's the principle that our rule in India is utterly unjust and wicked. So instead of being proud of my father's profession, much as I respected him, I'm profoundly ashamed of it; and it has been a great question to me always how far I was justified at all in living upon the pension given me for his Indian services.'
Edie looked at him half surprised and half puzzled. It was to her such an odd and unexpected point of view. But she felt instinctively that Ernest really and deeply meant what he said, and she knew she must not allude to the subject again. 'I beg your pardon,' she said simply, 'if I've put it wrong; yet you know I can't help feeling the great disparity in our two situations.'
'Edie,' said Ernest, looking at her again with all his eyes--'I'm going to call you "Edie" always now, so that's understood between us. Well, I shall tell you exactly how I feel about this matter. From the first moment I saw you I felt drawn towards you, I felt that I couldn't help admiring you and sympathising with you and loving you. If I dared I would have spoken to you that day at Iffley; but I said to myself "She will not care for me; and besides, it would be wrong of me to ask her just yet." I had nothing to live upon, and I oughtn't to ask you to wait for me--you who are so pretty, and sweet and good, and clever--I ought to leave you free to your natural prospect of marrying some better man, who would make you happier than I can ever hope to do. So I tried to put the impulse aside; I waited, saying to myself that if you really cared for me a little bit, you would still care for me when I came to Calcombe Pomeroy. But then my natural selfishness overcame me--you can forgive me for it, Edie; how could I help it when I had once seen you? I began to be afraid some other man would be beforehand with you; and I liked you so much I couldn't bear to think of the chance that you might be taken away from me before I asked you. All day long, as I've been walking alone on those high grey moors at Dunbude, I've been thinking of you; and at last I made up my mind that I must come and ask you to be my wife--some time--whenever we could afford to marry. I know I'm asking you to make a great sacrifice for me; it's more than I have any right to ask you; I'm ashamed of myself for asking it; I can only make you a poor man's wife, and how long I may have to wait even for that I can't say; but if you'll only consent to wait for me, Edie, I'll do the best that lies in me to make you as happy and to love you as well as any man on earth could ever do.'
Edie turned her face towards his, and said softly, 'Mr. Le Breton, I will wait for you as long as ever you wish; and I'm so happy, oh so happy.'
There was a pause for a few moments, and then, as they walked homeward down the green glen, Edie said, with something more of her usual archness, 'So after all you haven't fallen in love with Lady Hilda! Do you know, Mr. Le Breton, I rather fancied at Oxford you liked me just a little tiny bit; but when I heard you were going to Dunbude I said to myself, "Ah, now he'll never care for a quiet country girl like me!" And when I knew you were coming down here to Calcombe, straight from all those grand ladies at Dunbude, I felt sure you'd be disenchanted as soon as you saw me, and never think anything more about me.'
'Then you liked me, Edie?' Ernest asked eagerly. 'You wanted me really to come to Calcombe to see you?'
'Of course I did, Mr. Le Breton. I've liked you from the first moment I saw you.'
'I'm so glad,' Ernest went on quickly. 'I believe all real love is love at first sight. I wouldn't care myself to be loved in any other way. And you thought I might fall in love with Lady Hilda?'
'Well, you know, she is sure to be so handsome, and so accomplished, and to have had so many advantages that I have never had. I was afraid I should seem so very simple to you after Lady Hilda.'
'Oh, Edie!' cried Ernest, stopping a moment, and gazing at the little light airy figure. 'I only wish you could know the difference. Coming from Dunbude to Calcombe is like coming from darkness into light. Up there one meets with nobody but essentially vulgar-minded selfish people--people whose whole life is passed in thinking and talking about nothing but dogs, and horses, and partridges, and salmon; racing, and hunting, and billiards, and wines; amusements, amusements, amusements, all of them coarse and most of them cruel, all day long. Their talk is just like the talk of grooms and gamekeepers in a public-house parlour, only a little improved by better English and more money. Will So-and-so win the Derby? What a splendid run we had with the West Somerset on Wednesday! Were you in at the death of that big fox at Coulson's Corner? Ought the new vintages of Madeira to be bottled direct or sent round the Cape like the old ones? Capital burlesque at the Gaiety, but very slow at the Lyceum. Who will go to the Duchess of Dorsetshire's dance on the twentieth:--and so forth for ever. Their own petty round of selfish pleasures from week's end to week's end--no thought of anybody else, no thought of the world at large, no thought even of any higher interest in their own personalities. Their politics are just a selfish calculation of their own prospects--land, Church, capital, privilege. Their religion (when they have any) is just a selfish regard for their own personal future welfare. From the time I went to Dunbude to this day, I've never heard a single word about any higher thought of any sort--I don't mean only about the troubles or the aspirations of other people, but even about books, about science, about art, about natural beauty. They live in a world of amusing oneself and of amusing oneself in vulgar fashions--as a born clown would do if he came suddenly into a large fortune. The women are just as bad as the men, only in a different way--not always even that; for most of them think only of the Four-in-hand Club and the pigeon-shooting at Hurlingham--things to sicken one. Now, I've known selfish people before, but not selfish people utterly without any tincture of culture. I come away from Dunbude, and come down here to Calcombe: and the difference in the atmosphere makes one's very breath come and go freer. And I look at you, Edie, and think of you beside Lady Hilda Tregellis, and I laugh in my heart at the difference that artificial rules have made between you. I wish you knew how immeasurably her superior you are in every way. The fact is, it's a comfort to escape from Dunbude for a while and get down here to feel oneself once more, in the only true sense of the word, in a little good society.'
While these things were happening in the Bourne Close, palsied old Miss Luttrell, mumbling and grumbling inarticulately to herself, was slowly tottering down the steep High Street of Calcombe Pomeroy, on her way to the village grocer's. She shambled in tremulously to Mrs. Oswald's counter, and seating herself on a high stool, as was her wont, laid herself out distinctly for a list of purchases and a good deliberate ill-natured gossip.
'Two pounds of coffee, if you please, Mrs. Oswald,' she began with a quaver; 'coffee, mind, I say, not chicory; your stuff always has the smallest possible amount of flavour in it, it seems to me, for the largest possible amount of quantity; all chicory, all chicory--no decent coffee to be had now in Calcombe Pomeroy. So your son's at home this week, is he? Out of work, I suppose? I saw him lounging about on the beach, idling away his time, yesterday; pity he wasn't at some decent trade, instead of hanging about and doing nothing, as if he was a gentleman. Five pounds of lump sugar, too; good lump sugar, though I expect I shall get nothing but beetroot; it's all beetroot now, my brother tells me; they've ruined the West Indies with their emancipation fads and their differential duties and the Lord knows what--we had estates in the West Indies ourselves, all given up to our negroes nowadays--and now I believe they have to pay the French a bounty or something of the sort to induce them to make sugar out of beetroot, because the negroes won't work without whipping, so I understand; that's what comes in the end of your Radical fal-lal notions. Well, five pounds of lump, and five pounds of moist, though the one's as bad as the other, really. A great pity about your son. I hope he'll get a place again soon. It must be a trial to you to have him so idle!'
'Well, no, ma'am, it's not,' Mrs. Oswald answered, with such self-restraint as she could command. 'It's not much of a trial to his father and me, for we're glad to let him have a little rest after working so hard at Oxford. He works too hard, ma'am, but he gets compensation for it, don't 'ee see, Miss Luttrell, for he's just been made a Fellow of the Royal Society--"for his mathematical eminence," the "Times" says--a Fellow of the Royal Society.'
Even this staggering blow did not completely crush old Miss Luttrell. 'Fellow of the Royal Society,' she muttered feebly through her remaining teeth. 'Must be some mistake somewhere, Mrs. Oswald--quite impossible. A very meritorious young man, your son, doubtless; but a National schoolmaster's hardly likely to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society. Oh, I remember you told me he's not a National schoolmaster, but has something to do at one of the Oxford colleges. Yes, yes; I see what it is--Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. You subscribe a guinea, and get made a Fellow by subscription, just for the sake of writing F.R.G.S. after your name; it gives a young man a look of importance.'
'No, Miss Luttrell, it isn't that; it's the Royal Society; and if you'll wait a moment, ma'am, I'll fetch you the president's letter, and the diploma, to let you see it.'
'Oh, no occasion to trouble yourself, Mrs. Oswald!' the old lady put in, almost with alacrity, for she had herself seen the announcement of Harry Oswald's election in the 'Times' a few days before. 'No occasion to trouble yourself, I'm sure; I daresay you may be right, and at any rate it's no business of mine, thank heaven. I never want to poke my nose into anybody else's business. Well, talking of Oxford, Mrs. Oswald, there's a very nice young man down here at present; I wonder if you know where he's lodging? I want to ask him to dinner. He's a young Mr. Le Breton--one of the Cheshire Le Bretons, you know. His father was Sir Owen Le Breton, a general in the Indian army--brother officer of Major Standish Luttrell's and very nice people in every way. Lady Le Breton's a great friend of the Archdeacon's, so I should like to show her son some little attention. He's had a very distinguished career at Oxford--your boy may have heard his name, perhaps--and now he's acting as tutor to Lord Lynmouth, the eldest son of Lord Exmoor, you know; Lady Exmoor was a second cousin of my brother's wife; very nice people, all of them. The Le Bretons are a really good family, you see; and the Archdeacon's exceedingly fond of them. So I thought if you could tell me where this young man is lodging--you shop-people pick up all the gossip in the place, always--I'd ask him to dinner to meet the Rector and Colonel Turnbull and my nephew, who would probably be able to offer him a little shooting.'
'There's no partridges about in May, Miss Luttrell,' said Mrs. Oswald, quietly smiling to herself at the fancy picture of Ernest seated in congenial converse with the Rector, Colonel Turnbull, and young Luttrell; 'but as to Mr. Le Breton, I do happen to know where he's stopping, though it's not often that I know any Calcombe gossip, save and except what you're good enough to tell me when you drop in, ma'am; for Mr. Le Breton's stopping here, in this house, with us, ma'am, this very minute.'
'In this house, Mrs. Oswald!' the old lady cried with a start, wagging her unsteady old head this time in genuine surprise; 'why, I didn't know you let lodgings. I thought you and your daughter were too much of fine ladies for that, really. I'm glad to hear it. I'll leave a note for him.'
'No, Miss Luttrell, we don't let lodgings, ma'am, and we don't need to,' Mrs. Oswald answered, proudly. 'Mr. Le Breton's stopping here as my son's guest. They were friends at Oxford together: and now that Mr. Le Breton has got his holiday, like, Harry's asked him down to spend a fortnight at Calcombe Pomeroy. And if you'll leave a note I'll be very happy to give it to him as soon as he comes in, for he's out walking now with Harry and Edith.'
Old Miss Luttrell sat for half a minute in unwonted silence, revolving in her poor puzzled head what line of tactics she ought to adopt under such a very singular and annoying combination of circumstances. Stopping at the village grocer's!--this was really too atrocious! The Le Bretons were all as mad as hatters, that she knew well; all except the mother, who was a sensible person, and quite rational. But old Sir Owen was a man with the most absurd religious fancies--took an interest in the souls of the soldiers; quite right and proper, of course, in a chaplain, but really too ridiculous in a regular field officer. No doubt Ernest Le Breton had taken up some equally extraordinary notions--liberty, equality, fraternity, and a general massacre, probably; and he had picked up Harry Oswald as a suitable companion in his revolutionary schemes and fancies. There was no knowing what stone wall one of those mad Le Bretons might choose to run his head against. Still, the practical difficulty remained--how could she extricate herself from this awkward dilemma in such a way as to cover herself with glory, and inflict another bitter humiliation on poor Mrs. Oswald? If only she had known sooner that Ernest was stopping at the Oswalds, she wouldn't have been so loud in praise of the Le Breton family; she would in that case have dexterously insinuated that Lady Le Breton was only a half-pay officer's widow, living on her pension; and that her boys had got promotion at Oxford as poor scholars, through the Archdeacon's benevolent influence. It was too late now, however, to adopt that line of defence; and she fell back accordingly upon the secondary position afforded her by the chance of taking down Mrs. Oswald's intolerable insolence in another fashion.
'Oh, he's out walking with your daughter, is he?' she said, maliciously. 'Out walking with your daughter, Mrs. Oswald, not with your son. I saw her passing down the meadows half an hour ago with a strange young man; and her brother stopped behind near the millpond. A strange young man; yes, I noticed particularly that he looked like a gentleman, and I was quite surprised that you should let her walk out with him in that extraordinary manner. Depend upon it, Mrs. Oswald, when young gentlemen in Mr. Le Breton's position go out walking with young women in your daughter's position, they mean no good by it--they mean no good by it. Take my advice, Mrs. Oswald, and don't permit it. Mr. Le Breton's a very nice young man, and well brought up no doubt--I know his mother's a woman of principle--still, young men will be young men; and if your son goes bringing down his fine Oxford acquaintances to Calcombe Pomeroy, and you and your husband go flinging Miss Jemima--her name's Jemima, I think--at the young men's heads, why, then, of course, you must take the consequences--you must take the consequences!' And with this telling Parthian shot discharged carefully from the shadow of the doorway, accompanied by a running comment of shrugs, nods, and facial distortions, old Miss Luttrell successfully shuffled herself out of the shop, her list unfinished, leaving poor Mrs. Oswald alone and absolutely speechless with indignation. Ernest Le Breton never got a note of invitation from the Squire's sister: but before nightfall all that was visitable in Calcombe Pomeroy had heard at full length of the horrid conspiracy by which those pushing upstart Oswalds had inveigled a son of poor Lady Le Breton's down to stop with them, and were now trying to ruin his prospects by getting him to marry their brazen-faced hussey, Jemima Edith.
When Edie returned from her walk that afternoon, Mrs. Oswald went up into her bedroom to see her daughter. She knew at once from Edie's radiant blushing face and moist eyes what had taken place, and she kissed the pretty shrinking girl tenderly on her forehead. 'Edie darling, I hope you will be happy,' she whispered significantly.
'Then you guess it all, mother dear?' asked Edie, relieved that she need not tell her story in set words.
'Yes, darling,' said the mother, kissing her again. 'And you said "yes."'
Edie coloured once more. 'I said "yes," mother, for I love him dearly.'
'He's a dear fellow,' the mother answered gently; 'and I'm sure he'll do his best to make you happy.'
Later on in the day, Harry came up and knocked at Edie's door. His mother had told him all about it, and so had Ernest. 'Popsy,' he said, kissing her also, 'I congratulate you. I'm so glad about it. Le Breton's the best fellow I know, and I couldn't wish you a better or a kinder husband. You'll have to wait for him, but he's worth waiting for. He's a good fellow and a clever fellow, and an affectionate fellow; and his family are everything that could be desired. It'll be a splendid thing for you to be able to talk in future about "my mother-in law, Lady Le Breton." Depend upon it, Edie dear, that always counts for something in society.'
Edie blushed again, but this time with a certain tinge of shame and disappointment. She had never thought of that herself, and she was hurt that Harry should think and speak of it at such a moment. She felt with a sigh it was unworthy of him and unworthy of the occasion. Truly the iron of Pi and its evaluations had entered deeply into his soul!
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